|Message Delivered By Orlando Scott, Assistant General Secretary, Barbados Workers’ Union, At The Cave Hill Campus, University Of The West Indies’ Second Annual Health Day, March 26, 2002.|
Mr. Chairman, Sir Keith Hunte, Principal of the Cave Hill Campus, other distinguished members of the audience, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends.
We are deeply honoured that you have invited us to share these few minutes with you on the occasion of your second Annual Health Day. We also congratulate the University for instituting this event and thereby making such a positive move in relation to improving the health of the workers and developing partnerships and trust among the stakeholders on this Campus.
Perhaps we will use to-day as the beginning of a new chapter in our lives by making every day a health day, by adopting good habits, and thus achieving the reduction of the tremendous suffering that is caused by illness, injury, absenteeism and the high costs of medical care in Barbados.
More than a year ago Campus Registrar Mr. Andrew Lewis informed us that the University had started this very excellent programme. We thought then, as we think now, that your Health Day is an affirmative approach towards improving the health of the workers – Academic and Administrative and Technical Services - and students on campus, fostering partnerships between management and workers, and, in the long term, bolstering worker morale and productivity.
Mr. Chairman, Worksite health programmes are admirable initiatives in that they give workers, at all levels, the chance to participate in decision-making and in so doing, to share in the ownership of programmes. Worksite programmes are also important because they provide management and staff with crucial information on health care and can help insofar as diagnosing and healing are concerned. Many a person only knew of his or her diabetic condition or high blood pressure by getting checks at such events.
Your Health Day is an excellent one as it covers the important public health issues that challenge Barbados. Your judgment to deal with vector control, HIV/AIDS, chronic non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, as well as health and safety issues like repetitive strain, with the emphasis on carpal tunnel syndrome, speaks volumes of the insightful planning that has gone into your programme.
We also note that Dr. Sharon Harvey is addressing “Stress and Mental Health”. We say “well done”. We think stakeholders in industrial relations in Barbados have taken too long to be aware of the significance of having good mental health among the workforce. We will state why we have made that point. Most workplace safety laws and standards deal with the safety and health features of the workplace rather than psychological and/or mental health aspects of working conditions. And no less an organisation than the World Federation for Mental Health, tells us that stress is increasing in the workplace, and it is taking its toll on human lives and organizational effectiveness. While some stress is healthy, in that it motivates us to take action and make adjustments, too much stress is harmful and one of the main contributors to mental illness at work. Some studies suggest that corporations lose about 16 days annually in productivity per person due to stress, anxiety and depression.
Research also shows that people blame stress at work for problems with mental health more than any other cause – more than marriage breakdown, and bereavement or loneliness. A study has shown that 61 percent of people believed work stress was the main cause of mental problems followed by loneliness (59 percent), bereavement (55 percent), traumatic events (52 percent), the demands of modern life (50 percent) and relationship problems (50 percent).
In terms of the costs, to quote the Canadian Mental Health Association, emotional distress and mental illness accounted for 20 to 30% of all employee absenteeism and industrial accidents; and, for the first time ever, in 1998, mental or emotional problems at work exceeded physical causes as the primary reason for worker absenteeism in Canada. In 1994, untreated depression in the Canadian workplace cost employers an estimated $300 million in depression-related, long-term disability claims. Our argument simply is: if mental health disorders are affecting workers in Canada and across the Globe, as studies have shown, Barbados cannot claim immunity.
Research published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the year 2000 reveals that, in five other North Atlantic countries – Britain, Poland, Finland, Germany and the USA – shows that clinical depression was among the most common illnesses among the workforce in those countries, that it was costly, and that it was the major cause of absences.
We’ve sought to deal with the issue of mental health and absenteeism because, if we are to judge by recent public utterances in Barbados, we have not yet begun to conduct such serious and sophisticated analysis of the causes of workplace illness and absenteeism. Insofar as Barbados is concerned, the arguments are placed in either black or white. There is no grey. Our approach, thus far, is to adopt the dinosaur approach, and that is, malingerers and worthless people who don’t like to go to work cause that absenteeism. Perhaps, the UWI’s School of Medicine can lead the way by conducting the relevant research in this area of mental health and work, and thereby help us to take a more enlightened approach when dealing with worksite problems.
One of the subjects that we would wish to propose for your Health Day agenda is a discussion on Home and Family Life. We do so because it is universally accepted that workers’ emotional well-being is a product of both work and home. And research, conducted by the University of California, has shown that a high level of negative “spillover’ stress between work and home was associated with poorer physical and mental health. Conversely, high levels of spillover in both directions were associated with better physical and mental health. Negative spillovers in either direction were often paired with higher levels of stress, drinking, obesity and lower levels of exercise. Negative work or family environments have the potential to undermine a person’s resistance to physical and psychological illnesses by compromising the immune system and affecting negative hormonal responses.
Mr. Chairman, you may also wish to add another subject to your Health Day to be placed under the heading of Home and Family Life – and that is “Menopause”. Bajan men - and Bajan women, too - are not sufficiently cognizant about this question and, although I have no empirical evidence, I do fear, based on discussions to which I am privy, many of the fractures in the relationships in our homes and absences from work may occur because we don’t have enough discussions on a man-to-woman basis or indeed, publicly, about important health questions like menopause. Notwithstanding the efforts of Dr. Best and his colleagues, we still treat these areas as taboo.
And while we are dealing with the issue of gender, we wish to make out a case for women workers. Women represent some 40 percent of the global workforce, yet their jobs and the health and safety risks particular to them remain virtually unstudied. Occupational safety, health and the environment is often seen as a man’s domain, where women are out of their league. Very little is known about the effects of work on women’s health and safety, and in your future Health Days, we recommend that more attention needs to be placed on the effects of work on women’s health. We’ll give you an example: where women suffer from gynecological or reproductive problems and other possible work related concerns, a link is hardly ever made with their work. Additionally, women workers are exposed to more repetitive and monotonous work and to stressful conditions than men; young women are more likely to be physically assaulted than men, at work; and women are more likely than men to experience back strain, skin diseases, headaches and eyestrain caused by the job.
Chairman, the BWU congratulates the University’s management and staff for mounting this programme because we suggest that partnership, not confrontation and mistrust, is what we in the Barbados Workers’ Union and, indeed, the great majority of working people on our island, want from our Employers where occupational health and safety is concerned. We believe that partnership, as a process, can breathe life into the legal framework and deliver better working environments and better business performance. Partnership is the trade union contribution to making the Government’s stated policy of cutting workplace injury and illness rates
The Barbados Workers’ Union has already begun the partnership approach with the Barbados Employers’ Confederation and stakeholders in health, and last month we began the first in the series of joint health and safety and wellness workshops for 2002. It is expected that the Ministry of Labour’s Occupational health and Safety Week’s programme for 2002 will be woven around the second joint workshop, later in the year.
The British trade unions are claiming success from their partnership programmes. They say that, to date, existing partnerships between managers and trade union safety representatives in that country have prevented more than a quarter of a million major injuries and countless deaths and that one-third of a million days of sickness absence in the last two decades, by cutting the accident rate by more than 50 per cent. We in Barbados can achieve similar success – but we need first of all the will to put such programmes in place, and we need to recognize and accept that unsustainable workplaces lead to illness, injury, sickness absence, low morale and low productivity.
In order that we may have a graphic picture of the Barbados situation as it relates to occupational health and safety, as well as health in the workplace, generally, I wish to refer you to a paper, entitled “The Growth of On-the-Job Injuries in Barbados and their Impact on Organisational Performance”, written by Anthony Sobers, Chief Economist, Barbados National Productivity Council, and a “Survey on Work-Related Illnesses, Physical Injuries, Chemical Hazards and other Stresses”, prepared for the PAHO by the Earle and Phillips Consulting Group.
The Earle and Phillips Consulting Group’s study identify the following themes as arising from their findings of the overall health of employees in Barbados. They are:
• Most injuries in the workplace are caused by slippery floors or stairs, raised objects, or poorly placed equipment
• A significant number of employees suffer from mental fatigue and unsafe and/or unhealthy physical conditions
• The incidence of headache amongst the Barbadian workforce is high
• Knowledge of the proper handling of hazardous materials is relatively modest
• Workplace stress, the quality of home life, the extent to which worker talent is used on the job, how workers generally feel about their work and worker problems, getting to sleep are all issues which impact worker health
• The practice of safety training and the imposition of workplace protection rules are inconsistent across industries; and
• A strong relationship exists between hours spent at the computer and the incidence of health problems associated with excessive computer use.
I now turn to the paper by Mr. Anthony Sobers of the Barbados National Productivity Council. Mr. Sobers states that the Barbados experience of on-the-job injuries is not encouraging. Presently, 7% of the Barbados workforce becomes injured on the job, with the average sick leave, in each case, increasing from 16 days in 1995 to 29 days in the year 2000. The average time lost from injuries has increased by 81% over the period, which, in effect, means that out of a year consisting of 220 work days, the employer is losing 9% of work time to injuries alone. And he notes – my words not his – that the “mundane” factors such as collision/stumbling/slipping, as a group, represents the largest category of injuries and not tool and machinery-related incidents as might be expected.
Mr. Sobers states that over the period 1993 to 1999 benefit payments increased by 148%, that is, they increased from $4.5 to $11.2 million. The number of claims also increased from 639 to 4,016. These developments and their impact must concern employees and employers, as well as the other stakeholders such as the Occupational Health and safety Unit and the National Insurance Department and the Unions.
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Sobers suggests that the situation has surpassed the critical stage, given the rapid increase in the number and cost of injuries over the period. And he makes the further point that the evidence suggests that the severity of injuries has been increasing (from 16 days to 29 days per case in 2000), and might be related to poor environments and low sensitivity and understanding by organisational personnel of what is required for high performance.
What is important to readers is that both documents emphasize the need for investing in the health, education and welfare of workers as the cornerstone of building human capital for economic production. The Earle and Phillips Consulting Group made the point that it was evident that poor workplace health and safety leads to increased liability risks, absenteeism and lost workdays which all serve to erode competitive positioning, and that, part from health considerations, the improvement of working conditions is a sound economic investment.
Meanwhile the other paper, prepared by Mr. Sobers, proposes that the approach to injury reduction should be people-centred with emphasis on questions such as building high morale, the encouragement of good communication and inter-personal relationships, good physical plant design and lay-out, adherence to workers’ rights and participation and consensus building.Chairman, I’ve quoted from these two independent documents because they are unbiased, and on the ball, so to speak, and I recommend their comments as the way forward.